Lewisham a ‘borough of sanctuary’? ROFL, say destitute migrant families and our volunteer accompaniers.

What does Lewisham mean to you?

Rest and recuperation in the sauna at Glass Mill Leisure Centre after an afternoon spent touring Britain’s oldest surviving prefabs?

Compulsory land purchases that ride rough shod over the wishes of the local community?

Or perhaps—*warm feelings creeping back*—‘borough of sanctuary’, as one of London’s most diverse local authority areas just been styled by new Labour Mayor Damien Egan?

Unfortunately for Mayor Egan—and even more so for some of London’s poorest children—‘Lewisham’ is also a by-word for aggressive and arguably unlawful policies and practices on the part of the local council, designed to stop destitute migrant families from accessing the support they’re entitled to.

According to UK law, all local authorities have a responsibility to ‘children in need’ living in their area. That means if a child in Lewisham doesn’t have enough to eat or anywhere to live, Lewisham children’s services need to know about it—and act.

It’s the reason why children don’t sleep on the streets in the UK.

Except they do.

Because children whose parents don’t have the right papers are second-class citizens in the UK in 2018. And children’s services departments are a flashpoint in the ‘hostile environment’, with social workers under pressure to put cost-cutting and Theresa May’s racist-populist agenda ahead of the needs of children.

Since 2016 NELMA has accompanied over 100 destitute migrant families with no recourse to public funds to local authority social services departments across London to ask for help.

Why do we accompany? Because when families with no recourse to public funds go to social services alone—often at their wits’ end, with suitcases and crying children in tow—they are regularly turned away, or shouted at, or threatened with deportation, just for trying to assert their rights.

Lewisham is by all accounts one of the worst offenders. Is it any wonder that some parents choose to remain in abusive relationships–or sleep in shops or derelict buildings–when NELMA families report experiences like the following?

“I’m telling you, I was scared. That time that woman almost killed me. I wouldn’t have gone back on my own. When I got home, all my body was shaking and I fell down the stairs. She said if she had her way she would call immigration to take me to my country immediately. That particular lady, she’s not nice at all […]  I think she’s in No Recourse to Public Funds. She also called my phone from a private number, and she was bullying me, attacking me on the phone. She said I [had my child] just so I could stay here. She was just attacking me. I can’t remember any other time when I’ve been bullied like that.”

Lewisham’s aggressive gatekeeping is, of course, part of a budget-saving agenda.  Like councils across London the local authority has had its funding from central government slashed over the past decade. But when savings come at the cost of leaving children unfed or unhoused, local authorities need to be pushing back against the dismal logics of austerity—instead of passing the pain down the line to some of London’s most vulnerable families.

One of NELMA’s more experienced volunteer accompaniers speaks of a culture of disbelief in Lewisham’s NRPF team:

“I have attended Lewisham council as a NELMA volunteer several times and I have been repeatedly shocked and saddened to see how people in extremely difficult circumstances, and who are entitled to support, are being treated. Several social workers and NRPF staff have been aggressive, dismissive, rude, unprofessional and on occasion simply cruel. There seems be a concerted effort on the part of staff to avoid the council’s legal and moral responsibilities under section 17.”

 “In one case a social worker […] on the pretext of taking a 3-year-old child to the toilet when his mother was not in the room […] proceeded to question him about where he got his shoes. This was a cynical attempt to elicit incriminating evidence where there was none, and wholly inappropriate […]”

“In another case an NRPF case worker interrogated an attendee so aggressively—an ordeal that lasted several hours and included threats of imminent deportation—that she eventually collapsed in panic, resulting in an ambulance being called and [the mother] being taken to hospital.”

Another parent told us how the solidarity of a volunteer accompanier got her through a traumatizing day at Lewisham social services:

“I don’t know if I would have survived without the help of NELMA and [local migrant support organisation]. If I didn’t have someone by my side, I don’t know how the story would have turned out.”

The NELMA volunteer who went with her was scathing about the conduct of the council employees involved:

“They were dismissive of what was an urgently unsafe situation, instead wanting to go into minute detail about other parts of her life to discredit her.”

A third NELMA accompanier backs up the suggestion that frontline staff moderate their behaviour when a (usually middle-class) volunteer is in the room:

“I accompanied [X] to Lewisham in [month]. She was very low, depressed, ill and not sleeping, living in a storage area with no kitchen […W]e should not have been kept waiting for long periods of time without explanation, leading [X] to miss the chance to take her son to a school for children with special needs — this was the only place he could properly release his energies and the only place where [X] could get any rest. When we got to see the caseworker she got up from the desk without explanation and left us waiting for a further period of time. The questions asked by the caseworker were repetitive and suspicious. I was also treated with suspicion [But t]his experience was better than the last time [X] had approached Lewisham for support [when she was told] that her son needed was to be taken back to her country and disciplined.”

Yet the hostility of some of Lewisham’s frontline staff towards NRPF families is such that even volunteers accompaniers have been left badly shaken:

It’s hard to sum up what goes on at Lewisham council but my experience with them—which left both myself and [the person I was accompanying] in tears—showed that their behaviour […] is suspicious and accusatory from the off […The social worker] was highly contemptuous of my presence and my note-taking, at one point demanding I read all my notes back to them/hand them over before trying to actually take my notebook from me! […]”

 “They are antagonistic and aggressive verging on violent […The social worker] slammed down the phone […] even the interpreter was becoming distressed due to them shouting even at her […At one point] they tried to snatch my mobile from my hand! […]”

 “[The social worker] show[ed] a total refusal/inability to accept that sometimes misunderstandings occur in the high-pressure environments that they create with their repetitive leading questions and that people’s first answers sometimes need later elaboration within this and that this does not mean that the person is a liar. They are similarly bent on not accepting that situations in life can be complicated and not summed up by their attempts to twist them into their stereotypes. It seems that ultimately most of this is deployed so that in the end nobody has to do their job, which is, providing the support that people are entitled to.”

 “I was treated with suspicion and sarcasm. I felt that the family were made to feel like they had done something wrong by coming with an accompanier. I feel nervous to go back.”

Many of the parents and most of the children who approach Lewisham for support under Section 17 of the Children Act will end up becoming British citizens. If the so-called Windrush scandal demonstrates a callous contempt on the part of the Home Office for people who have been part of the fabric of London life for generations, local authorities like Lewisham risk forfeiting the trust of young people who represent London’s future.

We’re calling on Mayor Egan, Vicky Foxcroft and whoever succeeds Heidi Alexander to seize hold of a moment when migrants’ rights issues are suddenly (and doubtless fleetingly) a popular cause.

We demand an urgent independent review of the policies and practices of Lewisham’s NRPF team and an end to the violence being perpetrated against destitute migrant families in the borough!